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A Never-Ending story

Sometimes one wonders how such things happen. As a regular auditor to this particular site, sometimes issues can slip through the net – after all an audit is a sample of elements of a management system that apply within the area under scrutiny.

The site is a medium sized manufacturer of products destined to supply far flung markets all around the world. The quality of the product is maintained within certain parameters and overall the site does remarkably well and achieves excellent results.

Within the factory there lurked a dark secret which was revealed during the audit – not by myself, but directly from the production manager who had been in his job for over a year. Wind back the clock a few years to 2010 when a whole suite of around 24 standard operating instructions (SOP’s) were created by the production manager at the time. These quickly fell into disuse mainly because a longer list of shorter documents were created as a subset of the more complete SOP’s. They were called SPL’s (Single Point Lessons) which provided a snapshot of “key” items that operators should be aware of.

Think of the SOP’s as detailed documents which provided an ‘A to Z’ account of all aspects of an activity which ranged from how to store raw materials through to production processes and storage of finished goods. It turned out that they were reasonably badly written, incomplete and hadn’t been formally reviewed by senior management or anyone for that matter. Document control and management of these potentially important documents was equally bad, so it was no surprise that they simply ‘disappeared’ into the ether of a hard drive. A few years later the production manager retired and all these documents (apart from a few that were printed out in 2010) were lost forever.

After the SPL’s became the only documents that existed, operators muddled along, occasionally screwing up, but overall they seemed to suffice.

With the arrival of a new and more focussed production manager and with the interest generated by a recent HSE (Health and Safety Executive) report, the spotlight fell onto competency of the workforce. It became obvious that the SPL’s that had been used as the mainstay for how to train new operators, but which only really provided stepping stones (using the alphabet analogy were only including A, H, T, Z) compared to the previously complete A to Z of the SOP’s. How was it possible to provide a complete training process if the SOP’s were missing? Often these are used exactly for this purpose as they can be called TA’s (Training Aids) or Training Guidance Documents. They are not always used for day-to-day operations but they do represent a valuable bible which can be referred to as and when needed (resolving issues, root cause analysis, training, etc).

The only reason I was given this information was because the manager in question had already identified this as a serious priority that needed long term attention. A review of risk assessments and the development of new and improved SOP’s was needed before a credible competency assessment process could be introduced to formally demonstrate that the 100-strong production workforce were competent. The resulting plan of action was being used to track progress towards the achievement of the recently agreed objective.

I would have liked to have been able to identify the absence of SOP’s through my own efforts – after all, that is what auditors are supposed to do. Seek evidence, write nonconformances. In these cases, the auditor has to identify what is the problem, and then have the ability and presentational skills to push these issues right through to the closing meeting. Smart, strong, sensitive, persuasive – these are all attributes covered in classical auditor training courses but it makes me realise that even after 20 years of certification audits, there is still a need to learn from hard practical experience gained in the field. Little wonder that auditing has kept inquiring minds active to the job in hand – much like the Limahl song, the learning process is a never-ending story.

John Marsden   – 2nd November 2017

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